Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Springfield’s Lesser-Known “Historic” Sports "Shrines"

The Walker Memorial Grandstand

When I was a kid, Red Sox catcher Bob Montgomery was signing autographs at Walker Memorial Grandstand in Forest Park. He was no Pudge Fisk, but this was my first attempt at a Sox autograph.

The problem was, there were what seemed like a couple hundred kids already there when we pulled up. (Memory tends to inflate numbers.) All this for a backup catcher? I shouldn’t have cared if we blew it off, however, I wanted that signature! Problem solved: my dad knew a Parks and Recreation Department guy working the event, pulled some strings, and lo and behold, before I knew it, the city worker handed me the signed photo.

“But I didn’t get to see him sign it,” I whined. “I didn’t meet him.” Boy was I a spoiled brat. 

“We weren’t gonna wait in line for a couple of hours,” my father countered. “Not for Bob Montgomery.” He was right. Certainly not for Monty, whose claim to fame was being the last guy in the major league not to wear a helmet—he wore some sort of fortified cap at the plate until 1979. It was no helmet. There was a little plastic liner in there to protect his noggin, which wouldn’t have saved his life if Nolan Ryan beaned him.

The grandstand was built in 1945 and was named for brothers Edward and William Walker, who provided funding for the building in their estates, after the old grandstand burned down in 1940. World War II delayed the erection of the new structure, presumably because steel was needed for the war. I would love to find a photo of that earlier, ill-fated wood grandstand!

After the fire, the city actually considered building the replacement grandstand at Blunt Park instead of Forest Park, but went with the latter instead.

I can remember once blowing off firecrackers in the grandstand while a youth baseball game was going on. It was a nice day, so there was hardly anybody in there. I used the old “punk stick” as a delayed wick and then walked away from the scene of the crime, going outside and mingling among spectators waiting for the stick to burn down to the wick. BANG!!! Just imagine the echo of a firecracker in the empty grandstand. Even the umpire turned around. “What the hell?” spectators exclaimed. “Damn kids!”

Once I snuck into the abandoned locker room underneath on a dare—a scary prospect indeed.

Fast forward a few decades: when my son played more than a few games at that field, every once in a while a middle-aged guy or a group of teenagers would walk in and head to the top row to get stoned. I could never figure it out—there were acres and acres of woods in Forest Park, and you have to smoke at a youth baseball game? Maybe the grandstand cut down on the wind when they were lighting up, but still…Then again, they were causing MUCH less disruption than my fireworks antics, so I guess I’ll get off my high horse now.

Over the years the Walker Memorial Grandstand deteriorated. There were holes in the roof, and at one point there was no backstop screen. The city locked it up but people snuck in there to watch games anyway. In the summer of 1990, one of the crumbling staircase walls was knocked down by vandals. Demolition was considered in 1993, especially because the city didn’t want to invest in funding to make the stands in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It wasn’t considered a historic building, but at least the structure was sound. The grandstand area was the official starting gate for many road races, but as far as the structure’s future was concerned, it look like it was heading for its final out.

Then, in 1995, the “Hit One for Walker” committee was formed. With the help of the Edward Walker Trust Fund, the city refurbished the place. The roof and restrooms were redone, the concrete foundation was re-sealed, benches re-sanded (and many of them replaced), the building was repainted, and lights, a scoreboard, and a new sound system was installed. The dugouts’ drainage system was also repaired. Even work-release prisoners from the Howard Street jail got into the act, repairing the brickwork on the staircase wall. The grandstand was rededicated in 1999.

I’ve always liked this grandstand—Springfield’s mini-Fenway. Interesting lines and angles. And it’s a welcome relief from the sun when there’s a game during a heat wave, like many of my boy's games (above). Not just parents of the players watch baseball there—neighborhood people who go Forest Park after work often go for a walk and take in at least some of a game. 

These look like bricked-over ticket or concession windows—and sure enough the original drawing shows the barred windows that were in the original structure (below). It would be a fantastic project to restore those windows. Then again, we’re lucky enough the place is still standing.

The Bishop O’Leary Social Center

The Bishop O’Leary Social Center is on the Breckwood Boulevard side of the former Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School, which was built in 1948. The diocese closed the OLSH school in 2009 and the Balliet School, which was pretty much diagonally across the street, then moved into OLSH.

In the Social Center, my son’s St. Catherine team beat West Springfield’s St. Thomas in the championship game four or five years ago. It was the first time I had been in the building since I was a kid, when I attended a few Masses in there. No kidding, Masses in a gym in the late 1960s and early 1970s. My family must have been among the overflow parishioners from either Christmas or Easter Masses or both. I can’t remember. There were simply A LOT more people going to church back then!

What I do remember was during the Mass staring at the bizarre, huge heating grate contraptions on the wall (above) and imagining a monster living in there, ready to bust out—a creature somewhat like the fire-breathing Spot, who lived under the Munsters' staircase. Yes, that’s how a kid’s mind wanders during absolute boredom!

I made sure to take a photo at one of the grates just for the memories. But I wish I had taken other pictures of the curious interior of this facility. Lots of personality—nooks and crannies—much like the Holy Name Social Center.

I blocked my son’s face—no sense in plastering his image on my blog! There he is “biting” the “gold” medal to verify its “authenticity.”

The coach of the team was Marcus Chatman (above)—the best coach my kid has had to this point. He’s the son of Iris Chatman, a woman I knew from my Class of ’81 at Cathedral.

Fortunately, I found some Facebook photos of the gym’s inside. Fascinating building—check out that hardly-ever-used balcony up there (below). The Holy Name Social Center has the same thing. I only hope some couples snuck up there to make out during OLSH dances. That HAD to have happened.

In the back of the school are the separate boys’ and girls’ entrances I always found humorous. Why different doors?

It was in front of these doors where I got in a brawl with my friend after Communion practice, splitting his lip and getting yelled at by one the OLSH nuns. 

One of the crests on the front of the building: “Viam Veritatis Elegi,” which translates to “I have chosen the way of truth.” This was the name of Pope Innocent VI’s letter to the Mongols in 1248, exactly 700 years before the Social Center was built. According to historian Denis Sinor, the letter stated that Innocent IV “had acted out of a sense of duty to let the true religion be known to the Mongols, and that he regretted the Mongols' perseverance in their errors and adjured them to cease their menaces.”

It seems the Mongols had sacked eastern and central Europe. He asked them to “desist entirely from assaults of this kind” and “cease from stretching out your destroying hand.”

If only I had the same Papal philosophy after Communion practice. Instead, I spilled my friend’s blood upon these very steps and brought upon myself the wrath of God in the form of Sister Whoever-The-Hell-She-Was.

With that memory and history lesson, I’ll sign off and see you in October!